Is XS a Coffee Shop? A Noodle Hut? A Lounge? Lucky For You, You Don't Have to Decide.
The three-word trend continues. Center Stage recently appended the words "Bold. Smart. Alive." to its institutional moniker. The subject of last week's review, Blue Sea Grill, puts the words "Cool. Fresh. Raw." below its name. (Parlor game: Choose three words for yourself and your friends.) And for its part, XS, the multistoried new café that opened a few months ago near the University of Baltimore, has chosen "Coffee. Sushi. Cocktails."
The apparent incongruity of these three words is the entirely the point. XS is open from early in the morning until late into the night (2 a.m. on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; midnight on other days), and it's trying mightily to be a fluidly engaging space, visited for a cup of Seattle-roasted brew on the way to Penn Station; returned to later for a light Japanese meal; and dropped in on for dessert after a symphony concert or MICA lecture.
What distinguishes XS from other cafés that try to provide the same flexible experiences is how handsomely it manages its various moods and settings throughout the day. (At least on a good day; there are still glitches and missteps.) Making everything possible is the sharp urban vertical space that's been created here. Open wooden staircases bring diners up from the first floor to three more levels (or, more precisely, two full and two half-levels), culminating in a cozy, fourth-floor lounge. We've seen students working on laptops here in the afternoon, but in the evening, when the lights are dimmed, it goes all soigné, with a big flat-screen TV, thumping music, and dusky purple lighting.
The floor just below holds the main dining room, with about 12 tables and a burnished bar, where, kind of surprisingly, smokers are allowed to indulge. Up here, the side walls of exposed brick have been strung with galloping bee lights, and the front window faces Charles Street. It's a great city space.
The dinner menu consists mainly of sushi, sashimi, and other Japanese noodle dishes and appetizers. Our first encounter with the sushi menu, the sushi regular combination platter ($13), was, even at the bargain price, underwhelming. A chef's choice deal, this dish arranged what we thought were decent but bland examples of tuna and yellowfin on a too-large white plate. Only the restaurant's signature garnish, a purple orchid, gave the presentation visual interest. But on a subsequent visit, a friend tipped us off to the special maki selections--the chef's more elaborate creations--and we ordered a regularly appearing special, the independence roll ($11.95), seared wild tuna and avocado in a soybean-fish wrapper (think wonton material) stacked in a take-notice red-chili sauce. Much more like it.
Other Japanese offerings provided similarly mixed impressions. I'd easily recommend the pork and wasabi dumplings ($4.50), which pack a wallop of flavor and heat, and I'd suggest, too, the crispy-fried soft crab appetizer ($6.95), but with reservations about its strong accompanying ponzu sauce, which left us wanting a milder aioli. We liked one noodle dish, the nabe yaki udon ($11.95), a steaming seafood broth full of plump firm noodles and vivid vegetables, fish, and chicken; but the yaki soba ($6.25), pan-fried noodles with chicken, after the first few cinnamon-infused bites, wore us out with its too-uniform flavors.
From a selection of sushi-bar small plates, the sizzling sashimi ($9) left us a little nonplussed, mostly because we never figured out what was supposed to be sizzling. It worked, though, as an adroitly composed capriccio--thin layers of fish placed in a pungent oil. We went nuts, though, for the dynamite scallop ($8), a crock-sized dish of chopped mollusks and shiitake mushrooms in a peppery fish-flavored sauce.
Moving from here downstairs, you glide through two half-levels of additional dining space--including the primary seating in the early part of the day--and on the ground floor a proper sushi bar and a front counter for ordering food to go and admiring an assortment of plump desserts and tempting gelati. Everything we've tried from the breakfast menu (which is served all day) has been a delight. The quiches are big, fluffy monsters, the well-priced omelets($4.95-$6.95) are stuffed with choice ingredients--fresh roasted turkey, firm tofu, smoked salmon. But getting your breakfast can be an ordeal here; for some reason, whatever problems the folks at XS need to solve to make breakfast work, they haven't yet.
At this phase, service at XS on any given night is still a big question mark. Service is spotty (watching the food-bearing waitstaff climb all those stairs makes me a little nervous), but already XS seems to be living up to the challenge set by its three-word mantra. The coffee is good and strong; the sushi is at worst decent and sometimes much better; and as for the cocktails, as the old saying goes, it's always 5 o'clock somewhere.